SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian icebreaker with 52 passengers rescued from a Russian ship trapped in Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve began the long journey home on Friday.
"The passengers seem very glad to now be with us and they are settling in to their new accommodation," Jason Mundy, Australian Antarctic Division Acting Director who is on board the ice breaker Aurora Australis, said on Friday morning.
A helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon ferried the 52 scientists and tourists in small groups from the ice-bound Akademik Shokalskiy and transferred them to the Antarctic supply ship Aurora Australis late on Thursday.
The Aurora Australis is now sailing towards open water and will then head towards an Antarctic base to complete a resupply before returning to Australia.
Passengers, mostly Australians and New Zealanders, will probably arrive in Australia's southern island state of Tasmania around mid-January. The Russian crew on the Akademik Shokalskiy will stay onboard until the ice breaks up and frees the ship.
The rescue, repeatedly delayed due to weather and ice conditions, kicked off late on Thursday afternoon and took around five hours to complete.
Chris Turney, who led the private expedition, documented the rescue mission from the stranded ship with regular posts depicting videos and photographs.
"The first of the helicopters to take us home! Thanks everyone!" Turney and another passenger said cheerfully in a short video clip when the helicopter arrived to take the first group of 12 people.
Photographs showed passengers bundled in heavy parka jackets, snow goggles and hats, boarding a helicopter amid a backdrop of snowdrifts and clear blue skies - a big change from the cloud, howling gales and slow flurries that had prevented earlier rescue attempts.
"We've made it to the Aurora Australis safe & sound," Turney said on Twitter late on Thursday.
Mundy said there were enough rooms on the Aurora Australis for these passengers, and the ship can "look after them well for the final part of their journey".
The Russian-owned research ship left New Zealand on November 28 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey led by famed Australian explorer Douglas Mawson.
It became trapped on December 24, 100 nautical miles east of French Antarctic station Dumont D'Urville and about 1,500 nautical miles south of Australia's southern island state of Tasmania.
During their time on the ice, passengers amused themselves with movies, classes in knot tying, languages, yoga and photography, and rung in the New Year with dinner, drinks and new song composed about their adventure.
The Chinese ship Snow Dragon got within sight of the Akademik Shokalskiy on Saturday, but turned back after failing to break through the ice, which was more than 3 meters (10 feet) thick in some place.
The Aurora Australis and another French flagged ship also tried to help but failed to reach the ship because of strong winds and heavy snow.
Additional reporting by Lincoln Feast in Sydney and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry